Saskatchewan’s Helium Action Plan was announced on Nov. 15 by Minister of Energy and Resources Bronwyn Eyre. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of an eight-part series on development of helium in Saskatchewan.

REGINA – Saskatchewan has been a helium producer, but a very, very tiny one. Now, it’s seeking to be a world player.

There were four historical wells north of Swift Current that produced from 1963 to 1976. They were shut in because prices dropped. In 2014, Canadian Helium started producing from one well there, and has since moved to a second well, shutting in the first. In 2016, Weil Group started producing helium near Mankota, going so far as to set up a processing site. However, that site has since been idled. All, in all, it’s been a pretty small industry, until a few years ago.

But now, Saskatchewan is in the midst of a helium Renaissance. Two companies, North American Helium and Royal Helium, are drilling for it, and North American is actively processing and producing it. Other companies are getting into the game, acquiring land. Within that context, the Government of Saskatchewan put together its “Helium Action Plan,” launched on Nov. 15. And it’s an ambitious one.

Saskatchewan currently produces one per cent of the world’s helium. The government is aiming to increase that market share to 10 per cent, and do so by 2030, according to Minister of Energy and Resources Bronwyn Eyre.

“Helium is a key new area of diversification in the province of Saskatchewan. And we’re emerging as a new helium hub. We’ve done our homework. We’ve done extensive geological surveying of some 88,000 oil and gas wells, and conducted close to 6,500 gas analysis tests. And they confirm that Saskatchewan has world-class helium concentrations. And we fully expect we can achieve up to 10 per cent of global market share by 2030. That’s the goal – 150 wells, 15 purification and liquification facilities, as part of an integrated helium sector, and quite a few five hundreds; $500 million in forecast capital investment, $500 million in future exports, 500 jobs. Thousands of associated service jobs. And as we get there, reservoir discoveries are continuing as we speak, and exploration and production for helium are being ramped up.

“North American Helium’s Battle Creek purification facility, which opened earlier this year, represented an investment of $30 million in the province of Saskatchewan. It’s the largest helium purification facility in Canada. Saskatoon-based Royal Helium has undertaken extensive recent exploration, drilling and development work. In May, they announced a very large helium discovery at their Climax project, potentially the largest helium discovery ever in the province of Saskatchewan.”

Minister of Energy and Resources Bronwyn Eyre. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

She noted there has been a tripling of helium leases and permits in Saskatchewan since 2018.

“Helium, as we know, is far more than party balloons. It’s another future-facing commodity, used in advanced technology sectors, medical research, space exploration, nuclear energy generation and manufacturing semiconductors. There’s no substitute for it; limited supply and surging demand. And that global demand is expected to rise significantly over the coming years, with estimates the helium market will double by 2030.”

Eyre said the province had recently expanded the Saskatchewan Petroleum Innovation Incentive (SPII) to include support for innovative new helium projects. That’s in addition to the existing Oil and Gas Processing Investment Incentive (OGPII), which follows upfront private investment of at least $10 million. North American Helium has qualified for that incentive.

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“The goal of today’s Helium Action Plan is to improve our provinces competitiveness even more by further enhancing geosciences data, streamlining regulatory and administrative processes, and leveraging helium inclusion on the U.S.-Canada critical minerals list for major world economies.”

Eyre said, “Made in Saskatchewan helium is green,” in that it is produced from dedicated wells which yield high concentrations. “Helium produced in Saskatchewan is up to 99 per cent less carbon intensive than in other jurisdictions.” That’s because Saskatchewan helium is not produced as a byproduct of natural gas production.

The right geology for helium

Patty Thomas is vice president of geosciences for North American Helium. That company has been actively punching holes at Battle Creek, in the extreme southwest corner of the province, for several years.

They recently spent $32 million on a helium processing facility at Battle Creek, near Consul, its second in Saskatchewan. The first processing plant is at Cypress, and engineering and design for their next plant, at Cypress West, “is well underway and we expect production from this discovery to come online in 2022,” according to a June 7 press release from North American.

Patty Thomas is vice president of geosciences for North American Helium. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

Since November 2019, North American Helium successfully raised approximately $123 million to support ongoing exploration, development and production operations. The company has over five million contiguous acres of helium rights in Saskatchewan.

A geologist who lives in Saskatchewan, Thomas said she wanted to give “full credit and appreciation to the explorers that went before us in the 1950s and 60s that actually discovered the helium pools that we are producing today.”

“From North American’s viewpoint, from the business perspective, Saskatchewan is the right jurisdiction. We’re a top mining district jurisdiction in Canada, third in the world. And the Saskatchewan government has awarded us 21-year long leases with a 4.25 per cent royalty interest. That allows us, the geologists, to build a story, build the place, drill the wells, have a lot of things go wrong. And then things start going right, and eventually, you start to produce, as we are, and export as North American is. We believe that we can produce into a geopolitically unstable future, a very green product here in southwest Saskatchewan.

North American Helium video/YouTube/North American Helium 

“Saskatchewan has the right geology to take an exploration basin, and make it a success. You have to have so many serendipitous geological things, all to transpire at the same time. And we have it. We have a uranium and thorium source that’s unique to the southwest Saskatchewan. We have reservoir quality rocks, and those rocks are in trap configurations. And we have helium seals. Helium is a very small molecule. And in oil and gas business that conventional seal isn’t good enough for helium, but it is here. We have it. And we’ve covered it with 300 metres of shale, holding everything in place. It’s just a beautiful story.”

Helium is a product of the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium, which are found in the PreCambrian basement rock in southern Saskatchewan, below the sedimentary stratigraphic column.

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Thomas said North American has found trilobites, a marine animal that first appeared in the Cambrian Period over 500 million years ago, in its core. Those fossils will soon be on display in the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.

Thomas pointed out the 36,000 shallow wells and 10,000 kilometres of seismic surveys, and existing oil and gas exploration business in the area, have been helpful.

Expanding exploration to southeast

Royal Helium president and CEO Andrew Davidson said the helium industry in Saskatchewan “is growing at an exponential rate.”

His company has already spent about $20 million since 2019, mostly in southern Saskatchewan, around the Climax area. The company has drilled four wells near Climax, one near Ogema, and they plan on drilling six more over the next three months.

Royal Helium president and CEO Andrew Davidson. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

He said, “I certainly echo all the comments of North American Helium thanking all of the previous explorers and, and for us, we have that, in that we’re very thankful for North American Helium, who has really blazed the trail and shown companies how to take early-stage exploration from the 50s and turning into real world results. That’s the path we’re on. We’ve been focused exclusively in the southwest, up until now. We’ve extended our exploration area over to the southeast, by Weyburn and Estevan was a great deal of success so far.

 Royal Helium video/YouTube/Brian Zinchuk

Davidson continued, “Saskatchewan is the right place to be doing this, aside from the world class deposits of uranium, that we have a depth that that helps create the helium. We do have the traps required to hold it. And that’s globally exceptionally rare. So we’re lucky to have it here. And we also have the benefit of our established oil and gas industry, which transitioned seamlessly into the helium development world, using exactly the same people, same technology, same processes, you name it. The differences come in the processing, obviously.

“We’re exceptionally excited to be here, to be at the leading edge and very thankful for the Helium Action Plan that’s being rolled out today. It will do a lot to encourage future entrants into the exploration side of this business, which is certainly important, and will help develop it through to production and export, which is equally important, if not, if not more so.

The exploration to production process

Davidson said, “You know, it’s very interesting to hear the tagline on this, ‘From exploration to exports.’ It matches very closely with what our tagline has been from day one, which is ‘From land to liquids.’ Everyone starts by acquiring ground. And it’s been our goal from day one to get to the point where we liquefy gas here and Saskatchewan, for sale globally. We’re getting closer to that every day in Royal. North American is well on its way. And then the new entrants to the helium market here are certainly going to be moving quickly.

“I can’t be any more thankful. It’s not commonplace to have the level of support that we have here from the provincial government. And I would say that even before this program, the government was very, very intrigued and interested to work with us, to help us develop this into a resource play that warrants such an action plan.”

This is Part 1 in a series regarding helium development in Saskatchewan.

  • Nov. 23 Helium in Saskatchewan, Part 2: The role of incentives, and future revenue from helium development in Saskatchewan
  • Nov. 24 Helium in Saskatchewan, Part 3: Our place in global production and minimizing environmental impact
  • Nov. 25 Helium in Saskatchewan, Part 4: Helium development is entirely dependent on oil and gas expertise and services
  • Nov. 26 Helium in Saskatchewan, Part 5: Other players jumping into Saskatchewan’s helium play
  • Nov. 29 Helium in Saskatchewan, Part 6: Wellsite supervisor from Buffalo Pound has drilled for oil, potash, and now helium
  • Nov. 30 Helium in Saskatchewan, Part 7: Province releases study: Helium in Southern Saskatchewan: Geological Setting and Prospectivity
  • Dec. 1 Helium in Saskatchewan, Part 8: Zinchuk column: Tying it all together 
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